Water Quality Concerns Raised Around Livermore Oil Operations

by Jeff Garberson, originally posted on December 1, 2016


A Bay Area environmental organization has expressed strong concern after the California Water Resources Control Board offered preliminary approval of a proposal to allow an exemption to water quality standards in an area of east Livermore around oil drilling operations near Greenville Road.

The environmental organization is the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit group known particularly for its efforts to protect endangered species.

The move to lower groundwater standards in east Livermore arises from the plan of E&B Natural Resources, a major Bakersfield-based oil producer that runs the Greenville operation, to continue or expand its 30-barrel-per-day Livermore-area oil production. The operation includes injecting water extracted during the process back into the ground.

Drilling for oil in California typically produces much more water than oil, according to observers familiar with the process. The water that comes out with the oil must be isolated from wells and aquifers used for human consumption and for agriculture because it is contaminated with hydrocarbons and other chemicals.

The standard approach is to inject the water into geologically isolated zones that already have poor and unwanted water. Under state and federal laws, injection can be allowed only after a permitting process that assures the protection of nearby aquifers that are now or might someday be drawn on for potable water.

For the Center of Biological Diversity, the state’s preliminary acceptance of the Greenville proposal comes against a background of substantial findings of error in the permit program statewide.

That program is run by the State Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR. Less than two years ago, audits by state and federal environmental protection authorities found some 2,100 permits incorrectly approved by DOGGR that appeared to have the potential to allow contaminated injection water to reach wells or aquifers that could serve as the source for human consumption.

The fact that a sampling program then found no actual contamination was only partly reassuring, since the discovery of questionable permits was recent and water moves slowly in unseen directions underground.

Last week, an internal email from the Center for Biological Diversity blasted the Livermore water injection plan and the state’s preliminary approval of it, calling the Greenville Sands oil formation “the next aquifer state regulators will consider exempting from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act…(allowing) Big Oil to inject toxic oil waste and use our precious underground water resource as a toxic waste dump.”

The operating oil company, E&B Natural Resources, did not respond to repeated calls for comment, but a November 15 letter from Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the California Water Resources Control Board, gave some indication of its intention.

The Bishop letter offered “preliminary concurrence” with a plan to inject contaminated water underground far from useful water supplies and at depths significantly below those of existing water wells.

Injection would be into an aquifer whose water quality is so poor already that it “is not reasonably expected to supply a public water system,” Bishop wrote.

There are no water wells within Greenville Sands. Those that are nearby are at least 1,500 feet higher, he wrote. The zone in which the contaminated water would be injected is sealed off by earthquake faults and surrounded by low-permeability rock.

Alameda County’s Zone 7, the water wholesaler for the area, is aware of the proposed project and agrees with the State that it is unlikely to cause problems for public water systems, according to general manager Jill Duerig.

“The extraction of oil and water from, and injection of post-processing water to, the Greenville Sands unit…has been occurring since the 1970s,” she wrote in an email. “There is no evidence that the injection…has had any impact on potable drinking water supplies in the aquifers that overlie the formation.”

A much more skeptical view was expressed by a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, Patrick Sullivan. He noted that in Alameda County inspections last year, E&B was found to have committed multiple infractions of safety and hazardous material storage regulations that required a formal work plan in response.

Beyond the local water issue, he believes that regulatory authorities have been guilty of “real mismanagement” of the oil water injection process throughout the state, not only permitting the use of underground zones that might potentially connect with potable water aquifers but “in many cases” allowing companies to inject water at excessive pressure.

Because of corporate secrecy, it is difficult to know oil company plans, he said. “I don’t know what E&B plans for the Greenville oil field. If they increase injection, overpressure could create a pathway to contamination” of aquifers used for drinking water. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, “is intended to protect future as well as present aquifers.”

Some local landowners also expressed concern. Peter Paulsen, who lives near Greenville Road, said the quality and quantity of water from his 200-foot-deep well has “steadily deteriorated” in recent years.

When the well was dug in 1987, he said, they could draw “very good water and flow” from a depth of 20 feet. Now flow has tailed off and the water can’t be used for drinking, cooking or irrigation of plants.

He is also concerned that the contamination zone is considered sealed off by an earthquake fault. He and others interviewed for this story noted that faults move and may allow pressurized, contaminated water to flow.

He also wonders whether injection of pressurized water might “cause a seismic reaction.” Pressures involved in oil water injection are typically far lower than those used in fracking, which in places like Oklahoma has been associated with seismic activity, but it is difficult for landowners to feel reassured given uncertainty about E&B’s plans.

Whether more information will be forthcoming remains to be seen. A spokesperson for the California Water Resources Control Board said that a public comment period, required for approval of a state permit, should begin in January.

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